I can't really say for sure exactly how this whole thing started. Not sure if anyone can, really. Most of us don't have any memories from Before, and those who do are more interested in putting bullets in our heads than chatting. Not that we've tried. Or that we can even really talk. I'm getting off track though. I don't know what caused this whole mess. Could've been genetic mutations, virus, radioactive sheep, alien biochemical warfare. It doesn't really matter how it happened, all that matters is that it did. One day the world was fine and the next day half the world's population died. And then came back as Corpses.
Yeah, with a capital C. Because we're not just dead, we're undead.
And I say 'we' because I'm one of them. I don't have any memories from Before I died. Hell, I don't even remember how I died, come to think of it. Some of us you can tell something of who they were Before. For example, take that guy over there in the fatigues. He was clearly military, probably sent in to deal with the Corpse problem, before he got his arm gnawed off. Bad luck there, mate. Then that lady there was some high powered businesswoman, judging by what was probably once a really nice suit.
Me, well it's a bit harder to tell. Not a whole lot you can make out from a tall, lanky guy in jeans and a henley. Short, brown hair and eyes that were probably blue before the zombie-fog set in. Heavy jacket with a hood and standard black boots. Other than that there's not much in the way of signifying features: no wedding ring, tattoos, wallet. Not even any surprisingly placed piercings, or at least no visible ones and I'm not much inclined to fight my clothes off to check. I could've been anything. Anyone. I don't even know my name. I think it might've started with an N, but that's the best I've got.
I stagger down the street passed a Corpse who is jerkily scrubbing a window. And by that I mean he's been at it so long that the rag and his skin have rubbed away, so all he's doing is smearing his own blood and tissue over the glass. Gross, dude. Some of us get stuck; stalled. Muscle memories left over from Before is my theory. It doesn't matter though, we all snap out of it once the Hunger sets in. In the end, we really only have two things on our agenda: walking - or well, shuffling - and eating.
That's all we have left.
When that's all you have to look forward to every day, it's pretty easy to give up hope. It's not exactly fun, being a monster. But you have to find something to hold on to or else you become one of Them. The high-pitched snarl makes me look down the alley I've passed even though I know that territorial warning. A Boney. Nothing more than a skeleton with dried up muscles and an insatiable appetite, Boneys are what we all become eventually. They will eat anything with a heartbeat, and I mean anything.
I mean, yeah, so do I, but at least I feel bad about it afterwards.
I don't like living this way. I want more from life - afterlife? - than just wandering around and killing people. I hate the isolation and the loneliness. Sure there are others all around me but there's no connection. We don't associate with each other apart from occasional hunting parties. There has to be more to the world than this mindlessness. I want to think and experience and feel. And I mean that literally; Corpses don't exactly have fully functional nervous systems. I want to know warm and cold and pain. Anything has to be better than this numb emptiness.
My feet guide me along a familiar path, one I've travelled what must be hundreds of times. I've been hanging around this town for a long time now. It might've been where I died, but I'm not sure. My memory of waking up is fuzzy; just the blind hunger pushing me on. It's a decent-sized place, a bit outside the bigger city, with lots of homes and shops to wander through. I like that; I like to look at all the things that got left behind. I don't know what most of them are or what they do, but I collect them. They fascinate me. And it passes the time between meals. Not like Corpses sleep.
I've set myself up in a little place on the edge of town where I don't have to worry about the others messing with my stuff. Pretty much the whole square building is full of shelves, which is convenient. I think it was a bookshop once because when I moved in there were broken books littered all over. I saved the ones I could and tucked them away in the shelves, although I might have put them back together wrong because I can't read much. Not one of the skills that carried over from Before unfortunately. That sure would help pass the time.
I let myself in through the back door - the front is blocked by the collapsed awning - and wander up to the nearest shelf. I pull out the bit of shaped glass from my jacket pocket and set it down next to a stack of playing cards. I found it on the mantle of a house that morning, a little piece of dusty glass carved to look like a flower. A few of the petals have broken off but it doesn't bother me. It's pretty, a bit of nice in a world full of dead, and those are my favourites.
Well, that and music. I stumble, tripping over a stack of blankets I forgot about, on my way to the desk in the front of the building where I keep my special collection. The ancient record player is a bit battered, deep scratches in the wood panel along the right side and one of its feet missing, but it still works. There's a vinyl still sitting on the turntable from yesterday. My fingers are stiff and it's hard to grab the arm, but I finally get it into place, and then it's the best part.
The crackle. The rustling sound as the needle finds its groove, and then the dull thump. A bass beat, like the throb of a heart, right before the music starts. It's so - alive.
The keening, wavering voice rolls out of the record as I settle down in my usual spot, a pile of cushions in the nearest corner. I lay back and look up at the ceiling where water damage and scratches have painted a mural across the plaster. The hunger is building, I can feel it starting to claw at my insides. Tomorrow I will have to start the long walk to the city and find something - someone - to eat. But tonight...
Tonight it's just me and the music.
Seven years. I had just turned eighteen, the whole world spread out at my feet, and then the world had ended. Well, not technically, but a zombie apocalypse is pretty damn close. It sure feels like it sometimes.
I had always thought that zombies were just stories, the sort of horror movie monsters used to scare jumpy teenage girls. I can still remember the first time I saw one in real life. It was back at the very beginning, way before I made it to the Compound - known as Haven by the more optimistic occupants - when the world was still reeling from from this sudden new epidemic. I was out in Ohio at the time, still living in the same grubby little town where I'd grown up. I had made plans to leave, travel the world, but then suddenly there were people on the television telling us to stay inside and lock our doors.
So I'd gone back to the orphanage, the closest thing I'd ever had to a home. The town was quiet and eerie, everyone hiding in their boarded up houses. I went into the orphanage - it was so still, so silent - and in the main hall there were bodies. Children in matching uniforms, their skin striped with red and their skulls smashed in.
I turned to run, but there, in the doorway, was Sister Agnes. Only she didn't look like Sister Agnes anymore. Her skin was pale except for dark bruising around her eyes and purple veins along her neck. Those deep brown eyes that had so often been narrowed in disapproval at me as a child had faded over with a sickly gray fog. And worst of all, fresh blood stained her lower jaw and bits of flesh were caught in her bared teeth.
I thought zombie movies were bad, but nothing - nothing - compares to the reality of nearly being eaten by someone you know.
I startle out of my thoughts and realise that my best friend's face is only a few inches from mine. I flinch backwards in surprise. "Jesus, Duke," I say indignantly, putting a hand over my racing heart.
"Welcome back, Dolly Daydream," he replies with a smirk, straightening up and folding his arms over his chest. "Nice fantasy?"
"Not particularly," I admit with a grimace, but there's something about the scruffy rouge's presence that always makes me feel better. He saved my life in a lake east of Niagara Falls when a Corpse shoved me in the water, and we've been inseparable ever since. We don't know much about each other's pasts - although I suspect his might involve some acts of a dubious moral ambiguity - but it doesn't matter. He brings a bit of fun and humour into this world of death.
"Need a little cheering up?" he asks, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
I laugh and slap him in the chest. "Thanks but no thanks, Casanova."
Duke shrugs and combs his long brown hair back into a ponytail, securing it with one of the elastics around his wrist. "Can't say I didn't try," he says unconcernedly. "Anyway, I just came to grab you. It's go time."
I stand up straighter and instinctively place a hand on the holster on my hip. It's time for another supply run out into the Dead Zone. They are days I look forward to and dread in equal measure. Nodding, I grab my jacket from the back of the chair and pull it on. "Right then, let's rock and roll," I say.
Duke grins. "You enjoy these a little too much," he says pointedly as we head out of the large house we live in and into the Compound.
"It's just nice to get outside these walls for a while," I say, glaring contemptuously at the enormous steel and stone walls that encircle the Compound. I know they keep the dead out and they're there for our protection, but I've never been fond of feeling trapped. Turns out even the apocalypse didn't change that part of me.
"You're mental. And maybe a little bit suicidal," Duke says but he nudges me with his elbow to show he's joking. As we approach the meeting point just inside of the gates, he lets out a soft groan. "Oh, of course he's coming as well."
"Be nice," I say, rolling my eyes. I walk up to the dark-haired man waiting stiffly at the gate, his shotgun slung across his back and a scowl on his face. "Hi Chris," I say, leaning in to kiss him.
Chris turns his head at the last second so my kiss lands on his cheek instead of his lips. "Audrey," he responds, the affection still there beneath his stoicism. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah," I say, trying not to feel too disappointed at his coldness. It hadn't always been this way, and he's better when we're alone, but he takes his position of authority very seriously. I glance around at the four others with us while I collect myself and then turn back to meet Chris' ice-blue gaze. "Where are we going?"
"Med salvage," Chris answers tightly, his left hand clenching and unclenching around the hilt of the knife at his side. "Hospital down over the old state line." One of the wall soldiers wanders down through the group and checks our papers, and then nods us over the screen against the wall. I settle myself between Chris and Duke and watch as the grainy image flickers into life on the television.
The familiar, wrinkled face of Vince Teagues appears on the screen, his curled gray hair hanging heavy around his cheeks. I'm torn between fondness and frustration at the sight of him. When Duke and I had first arrived at the Compound, emaciated and nearly dead, Vince and his brother Dave had taken us both in and nursed us back to life personally. Even now, he insists we share his house, giving us bedrooms in the enormous manor house designated for the leader of the Compound.
At the same time, I don't agree with the way he manages things here. His idea of preserving humanity is to hide everyone inside this giant fortress and just exist in this miserable stasis. He's not even putting in much effort to find a cure, a way to fix things. I don't want to just linger and wait for things to get better. I want to do something to help.
Too bad I don't understand enough about science to do any research myself.
The Vince on the screen lets out a world-weary sigh and steeples his fingers together. "Thank you for your dedication and service," he says, his firm, leader voice not completely masking the huffing wheeze of an old man. "You know how essential these trips are, acquiring the supplies necessary to keep our people healthy and alive. I know that you-"
"You reckon we're going to find medicine for the cure this time?" I murmur to Duke, toning out the pre-recorded message. It's not like I haven't seen it before.
On my other side Chris makes a derisive noise. "Nobody believes in cures anymore, Audrey, don't be ridiculous." Duke shoots a significant look at Chris and then puts a hand on my shoulder. Still, the sympathetic half-smile he gives me tells me he's sceptical about there being a cure as well. Why has everyone given up?
"-even if they look like your mother, your brother, your friend, they are monsters. You cannot hesitate, but if you remember your training you will survive. Thank you all," Vince says, "and return safely to Haven. Good luck and God bless America."
"So patriotic," Duke says sarcastically. "Really, I'm moved." I try to hide a smile as the wall guards open the gate and usher us forward. Now's probably not a good time to be laughing. We all shoulder the backpacks they offer out to us and then step passed the gaping entrance into the garage. It's nothing more than a cavernous warehouse where we store all of the vehicles we've managed to salvage - which isn't very many for such a big population - and anything needed to maintain them. If they're designating a car for us then they're sending us much farther than usual, out of the normal scouting zones.
We all pile into a utility van, two of the larger men taking the front seats while the rest of us settle down on the hard floor in the back. It's uncomfortable, everyone knee-to-knee and our breath making the air fill thick and humid. I can feel the butt of Duke's gun pressing against my hip. There's a petrol can tucked in the corner and even though it's capped the acidic smell is heavy and makes my nose itch.
The soldier starts the van and outside the others pull open the front gates. The ancient van hums and vibrates as it rolls out of the Compound and into the open world beyond. As sunlight filters through the windscreen and illuminates the motes of dust swirling in the back compartment, the driver says, "Welcome to the Dead Zone, folks."
"Cheery, that," Duke says dryly. One of the women in our group, a pretty black girl a bit younger than me with a mass of curls, laughs appreciatively at the statement. Chris and the other man in the front scowl. Ignoring them, Duke adjusts the strap on his military grade rifle and shrugs. "What? This place is depressing enough as it is, no need to be so glum and dark or it's going to be a long trip. How long a trip is it anyway?"
"Two days, roundtrip, if we keep a good pace," Chris answers curtly.
Two days. Forty-eight hours outside of the safety and protection of the Compound. It's not the first time, and hardly the longest, but I know it's going to be a dangerous trip. I don't want to calculate the odds of us making it there and back without encountering a zombie horde. Or the odds of us all making it back alive. I unzip my jacket to counter the sticky air in the van, straighten my shoulders and take a deep breath.
At least I'm out of that stuffy fortress.